January 18, 2012 by Al
By Dan Berrett
When Archie L. Holmes Jr. teaches introductory engineering classes at the University of Virginia, he asks his students to come up with problems for him to solve in front of them. He calls the exercise “Stump the Chump.”
As Mr. Holmes, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, works through the problems, his students will watch him in real time as he pursues dead ends, crosses out equations and starts over, and reconsiders his assumptions to get to the solution.
“I personally believe students benefit greatly if they see us struggle,” he said at a daylong conference on teaching that was held here Tuesday. “They see that it’s OK for them to struggle.”
While Mr. Holmes made his remarks at a session on teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the description of his approach bore relevance to other disciplines and touched on a larger question that arose during the day’s sessions: When trying to engage students, how can faculty effectively balance their professorial authority while giving students more responsibility to guide their own learning?
Such a question underlies not just Stump the Chump, but other efforts to empower students to take an active role in their learning, like leading discussions, which was an idea that was described elsewhere during the session.
But many faculty members, particularly those early in their careers, tend to feel uncomfortable putting themselves in a vulnerable position in front of their students, said Marva A. Barnett, a professor of French at UVa and founder of the university’s Teaching Resource Center, which sponsored Tuesday’s conference. The center has been putting on conferences about teaching and learning before the start of each semester for 21 years.
“You have to have a real self-confidence and a willingness to say ‘I don’t know,'” said Ms. Barnett, speculating that faculty members might need to have a decade of experience before they feel comfortable ceding control to their students in these ways.
But the benefits of taking such an approach are many, she said. It shows students how scholars analyze open-ended problems, and makes faculty more approachable.
Such an approach also encourages students, by example, to try, fail, and persist. This pattern of behavior has been described by the research psychologist Carol S. Dweck, a professor at Stanford University. References to Ms. Dweck’s research cropped up repeatedly during the day. She identified two different mind-sets, fixed and growth, related to learning.
A fixed mind-set reflects the belief that intelligence is a static trait. People who think this way tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, and see effort as fruitless. They also feel threatened by the success of others. “I think a lot of what we do in the K-12 arena gets students thinking this particular way,” Mr. Holmes said.
A growth mind-set, on the other hand, sees the development of knowledge as a process involving effort instead of inherent attributes. Effort is a means to an end, and criticism is a source of learning, not a personal rebuke.
Asking students to ask tough questions embodies a growth mind-set, said Ms. Barnett, but it is a habit few students are trained to master.
“Students are programmed to give answers rather than ask questions,” she said after the conference. “But you’re not developing lifelong learners.”
Such talk might perplex some faculty members who are used to teaching the way that they were taught when they were trained as graduates and undergraduates. As one audience member asked, “Have we been doing this wrong for 100 years, or are our students evolving into a new species?”
Mr. Holmes said that, in the past, fewer people tried to go to college—and colleges felt little of the pressure they do now to graduate students. Institutions of higher education today are having to learn how to reach a student body that is more diverse, both demographically and in learning styles.
And it’s not necessarily true that colleges of the past did a better job of teaching, either, Larry Richards, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, added from the audience. In fact, because a more economically elite level of student once populated the campus, the reverse was probably true.
“If you’re selecting students,” he said, “you can teach absolutely miserably and they’ll still learn.”
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